Port rowing team booming, with athletes from all over LI

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Port rowing team booming, with athletes from all over LI
Members of the Port Rowing team compete at the Head of the Charles Regatta in Boston last year. Photo courtesy of Port Rowing.

The competitive instincts had kicked in, and Spyros Baris was as fired up as could be.

He was working his butt off and racing toward the finish line, with another competitor to his right. He kept glancing over to see where they were, as the lead changed a few times. First him, then his opponent, all the way to the end.

Finally, exhilaratingly, Baris and his teammates won, and collapsed into each other, exhausted but thrilled.

Was this a track meet? Nope. This was a sport you don't hear much about on the scholastic level, but one that's gaining popularity more and more in Nassau County, New York state and beyond.

Baris, a sophomore at Schreiber High School, and his seven teammates were competing last year at a state championship meet for rowing, beating out the freshman boat of RowAmerica Rye.

The Port Rowing team has been giving boys and girls from middle school and high school the opportunity to push themselves and have fun since 2010, when the club was founded by Port Washington resident Monika Dorman.

And while Port Rowing is the name of the club, the moniker isn't quite accurate, as the 100-person strong team has athletes from as far away as Riverhead, Manhattan and the Bronx.

Their “home water” is at North Hempstead State Park, with the boats heading out for practice at Hempstead Harbor as long as the weather holds up.

But the team competes in regattas and events all up and down the east coast, including in Sarasota, Florida and Saratoga Springs in upstate New York.

And their success is extraordinary: This year alone, 12 rowers (3 from the boys team, nine from the girls team) have signed to compete in college, at schools like Boston University, George Washington, Lehigh, and the University of Central Florida.

So what is the appeal of the sport, that makes teenagers wake up for 5 a.m. workouts and push their bodies in ways they didn't know possible? Ask five different rowers and get five different answers, though the one answer that's consistent is their friends think they're certifiably nuts for doing it.

For senior Vince Dipalo, who goes to Kellenberg in Uniondale and is signed to row for Division I Fairfield (Conn.) University, rowing appeals to his competitive nature and ability to concentrate.

“You get so locked in when you're in the boar, and all you see is the straight line ahead of you, and the back of the head of the guy sitting in front of you,” Dipalo said. “It's exhausting, six minutes of pushing yourself so hard. You get done, and your legs are like jelly.

“But it's just so awesome.”

Baris, a sophomore at Schreiber High School, said he gave up soccer for rowing because he loved the team aspect with each member of the boat being equally important.

“In basketball or some other sports, you could have 2-3 star players and the team is really good, even if some of the other players aren't,” Baris said. “Here, if someone isn't pulling their weight, that affects everybody. Each person has to be mentally and physically ready or else you're not going to succeed.”

One of the main aims of Port Rowing, boys coach Aaron Bosgang said, is to make rowing accessible to everybody.

Some kids come once, see how hard it is, and never come back. Others, like Schreiber's Sasha Wright (who'll be a coxswain at George Washington next year; a coxswain is like the stage manager/director of the boat, telling all the other rowers what to do and strategizing during the race) come out once and are hooked forever.

“My parents had a friend who thought I might like rowing, so in 7th grade I started and I was terrible,” Wright laughed. “So, so bad, no one worse than me. I'm only 5-foot-1 so I didn't have the strength others had. But I loved it so much, I needed to find a way to keep doing it.”

“You get kids who haven't quite found their place in other sports, and come out here and decide they want to dedicate themselves to it,” Bosgang said. “It's not easy when you train for weeks and weeks and row miles and miles for months, and then you have a six-minute race and it's over. But the culture that has been built has really made it so that we welcome everybody.”

One belief that outsiders may have about rowing, that it's all about upper body strength, is dispelled by the Port rowers.

Dipalo and others say leg strength is paramount; the ability to push off during the stroke and keep a strong core is just as important as arm and shoulder power.

“There's a lot of physics involved,” Dipalo said. “Your arms work if you're sculling (a technique in rowing), but if you're using one oar, you're being light with your upper body.”

Once you've decided rowing is for you, and want to do it in college, there's a lot of recruiting work to do. Port Rowing kids splice highlight tapes, email scads of coaches and follow up as much as possible to get their abilities seen.

For Ana Woodside, a senior at Schreiber whose twin sister, Estella, is also going to Boston University to compete next year, her decision to try rowing has given her major callouses and ripped skin on her hands, but the benefits have been so much more.

“I'm eternally grateful that I took the chance to try this sport out,” Woodside said, beaming. “My life... it's changed forever because of this sport.”

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